Map of the final days of the Kovno ghetto.
Deportation from Kovno ghetto to Estonia, October 1943.
Introduction
Invasion
Mass Murder
Ghettoization
Inside the Ghetto
Secret Archives
Final Days
Timeline

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The ruins of the Kovno ghetto.

The German order of June 21, 1943, to transform the eastern European ghettos into concentration camps foreboded steady deterioration for the Kovno ghetto. The SS took charge of the ghetto from German civil authorities on September 15, increasing German control over the Jews' daily lives and eroding even further the Altestenrat's narrow latitude of influence. As fall became winter, nearly 2,000 Jewish workers were dispersed to small labor camps outside the ghetto. Still, the Jews of Kovno, now inmates in Concentration Camp Kauen, endured their daily humiliations with the desperate hope that because the Soviet armies were approaching, they would outlast the German occupation. Fears overshadowed hope in the fall of 1943 when news came about the two other major ghettos in Lithuania: the liquidation of the nearby Vilna ghetto in late September, and in early November, the German murder of all Jewish children in the Shavli ghetto. As the Soviet army drew nearer, intensifying the atmosphere of crisis, the search for ways to escape grew more urgent. Small groups from the underground managed to escape and to join pro-Soviet partisan units in the Rudniki (Rudninkai) Forest. Under the pretense of reporting for work assignments, more than 300 Jewish fighters reached their freedom over a period of six months.
Fort IX continued to be the scene of carnage. Throughout the fall, in the face of the Red Army's steady advance in Kovno's direction, the Germans implemented plans to erase evidence of their crimes at the killing center. Imprisoned Jews and Soviet prisoners of war were forced to exhume and burn the tens of thousands of corpses. On December 25, 1943, 64 prisoners took advantage of the guards' festive Christmas spirit and escaped through a tunnel to the fort's outer ramparts. A band of 21 set off to create their own partisan base, 20 went to join the partisans already in the forest, and 10 sought safety separately in nearby villages. The remaining 13 sneaked into the ghetto. The next day, 11 of them described in writing the final stages of Fort IX's hellish deeds, detailing the aggressive elimination of every last trace of the murdered Jews' existence.
Throughout the ghetto's history, individual Lithuanians risked their own lives to help their Jewish friends and former neighbors. The number of such exceptional saving gestures increased markedly during the winter and spring of 1943-44. By smuggling food packages through the ghetto fence, providing forged birth certificates, or offering shelter on remote farms, Lithuanians rescued up to 500 Jews, many of them children. In the end, mere hundreds of Kovno's Jews reached sanctuary outside the gehtto. Others sought refuge within the ghetto in secret underground bunkers. For the vast majority of those still confined to the Concentration Camp Kauen in spring 1944, there was no escaping the last deportations and the ghetto's liquidation.
On October 26, 1943, in the first move to destroy the ghetto, the Germans deported more than 2,700 Jews to work camps in Estonia, a Baltic state north of Lithuania also under German occupation. It was devastating enough that the deportation uprooted more than 20 percent of the remnant ghetto. Worse were the deportees' destinies: almost no one bound for Estonia survived; children and the elderly, separated from the others, were sent straight to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. On March 27, 1944, the SS ordered the 130 men of the Jewish Ghetto Police to assemble in full uniform for their usual work assignments. This time they were taken to Fort IX, where they were interrogated under torture about their connections with the underground and the whereabouts of the ghetto's hiding places. The Germans executed the police chief, Moshe Levin, and 25 others, including most of the leadership. That same day and the next, German soldiers conducted a house-to-house search to round up the ghetto's remaining children under the age of 12 and adults over age 55 -- more than 1,300 people in all -- and sent them to their deaths at Fort IX.
As the Soviets neared Kovno in early July, the Germans commenced the transport of all remaining Jews, about 6,100 over a six-day period beginning July 8, to concentration camps in Germany -- the women to Stutthof and the men to Dachau. Just three weeks before the Soviet liberation of Kovno, the Germans proceeded to raze the Concentration Camp Kauen. It is almost incomprehensible that any documentation survived: the Altestenrat's secret archives, police and underground reports, fragments of religious responsa, an adolescent's diary -- all were buried beneath the ghetto's wasteland surface. The order to destroy arose from the suspicion that Jews might still be in hiding in underground bunkers. The SS ordered German troops to blow up every house with grenades and dynamite. They then poured gasoline over much of the former ghetto and incinerated it. After one week, the fire burned out, leaving a charred landscape of rubble and stone chimneys. On the eve of the Holocaust there were 37,000 Jews in Kovno. At the end of the Holocaust, an estimated 500 survived in forests, in hiding, or in bunkers, and some 2,500 survived the concentration camps in Germany. In liberated Lithuania, only 8,000 to 9,000 Jews remained from the prewar population of 235,000. More than 95 percent of Lithuanian Jewry had been destroyed.
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Pen and ink art by Esther Lurie, "Deportation to a Labor Camp", 1943.
Ruins of the Kovno ghetto.
Elena Kutorgiene, a Russian-trained physician in Kovno, assisted many Jews from the ghetto to escape into hiding and maintained active ties with the partisan underground.
On October 26, 1943, the SS deported 2,709 persons from the ghetto. Those deemed fit for work were sent to harsh labor camps in northern Estonia, while children and the elderly were deported to Auschwitz. Few survived.
Final muster of the Jewish Police before they were taken to Fort IX.
The Kovno ghetto in flames.
Oral histories describing the final days of the ghetto.
A drawing by Anatoli Garnik, depicting the exhumation and burning of bodies. Garnik had escaped from the Fort IX massacre site.
Letter from the Kovno ghetto by Shulamith Rabinowitz to her children in Palestine, June 27, 1944.